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Fiona Harvey, environment correspondent, Friday 2nd November 2012 00:01
The UK must brace itself for a high likelihood of winter floods, the Met Office and the government's flooding watchdog have warned.
Saturated ground around the country, and high river and groundwater levels from the wet summer, will mean that much less rainfall than usual is needed to top up water levels and cause severe flooding, according to the Environment Agency.
There is now a significantly higher risk of flooding this autumn and winter, even with small amounts of rain, so households have been advised to check warnings for their area. One in six homes is at some risk of flooding.
Sarah Jackson, of the Met Office, said: "We are heading into the winter period which is traditionally the wetter period of the year in the UK. Because the ground is so wet, if we do have any prolonged heavy rainfall in any part of the country, there is going to be heightened risk of flooding."
Any severe flooding this winter will also raise questions over the government's cuts to some proposed new flood defences, some of which are now being abandoned or scaled back. Insurers have warned that they may end their long-standing agreement to provide all UK homes with flood cover. If they do so, some people will find themselves in uninsurable homes.
Experts singled out Devon, Dorset and Hampshire in the south as being particularly at risk, because of high groundwater levels, while in the north of England and Wales the risk has been heightened from recent heavy rainfall. In the south-west, the main threat will be from rivers, especially this month and next.
Coastal areas are braced for high spring tides occurring in the middle of this month and from 12 to 18 December.
Paul Mustow, head of flood incident management at the Environment Agency, urged people to take action against "the UK's number one natural hazard". He advised: "The most important step people can take in protecting themselves from the worst impacts is to find out if they are at risk, and sign up to our free flood warnings service." More than a million people are currently signed up.
One question that the Met Office researchers are now working on is whether the unusually grim weather this year was the result of global warming. For six years in a row, the UK has suffered unusually wet summers with less sunlight than normal. This has been largely owing to the positioning of the "jet stream", a northern latitudes weather system that usually brings periods of settled weather to UK summers but for several years has been changing position, resulting in the opposite.
Some experts think the positioning of the weather system has been affected by the melting Arctic. This year, the Arctic ice reached the lowest extent ever recorded, and there was more widespread melting of the Greenland ice sheet than seen before.
The Environment Agency said households and businesses should check their flood risk and sign up to receive free flood warnings at www.environment-agency.gov.uk/flood.